Water Music at Kilmun

And how it is Handel-led….

The unusual organ in Historic Kilmun was installed in 1909 as a replacement for a troublesome fifteen year old instrument which even after repairs sounded dreadful. The church was undergoing refurbishment and extension at the time, generously funded by the local Laird, Henry James Younger of Benmore and he kindly added a new organ to the works he funded. There was no electricity in the village at that time – it was not installed in 1933 and a hydraulic engine was the best option.

The instrument was manufactured by Norman and Beard, a business founded in Diss in Norfolk during 1870 by Ernest William Norman who moved to Norwich in 1876 to form a partnership with his brother, Herbert John Norman. In 1887 they entered into partnership with George A. Wales Beard, and the company was formed. They had a Glasgow branch with headquarters in London and supplied instruments to many prestigious buildings, including the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and several cathedrals. The engine was built by J & A Barr of Glasgow and the church brochure gives a description

“It has a single vertical cylinder, with a double acting piston of diameter 9 cm and stroke 18cm driving twin bellows. It is controlled by an hydraulic starter, operated from the organ console.”

An organ is now thought as a normal component of any church building where communities come together to worship. These occasions are complimented by the organ. Soft background music helps quiet reflection and preparation for prayer, and music can change and enhance the mood & atmosphere.

How did the water organ begin? A Greek inventor named Ktesibios called his invention “Water Aulos”, or “Hydraulos”, from which the word “hydraulic” is derived. Air was forced through the organ pipes by the weight of water rather than by falling lead weights.

As in a pipe organ, the sound is made by air blowing through the pipes, but power to make the air blow does not come from bellows or from electricity but from water, for example from a waterfall. The water would fall onto a barrel with raised areas; as the water hit them they produced sound. The water organ works by having water and air arriving together in the camera aeolis (wind chamber). Here, water and air separate and the compressed air is driven into a wind-trunk on top of the camera aeolis, to blow the organ pipes. Two perforated ‘splash plates’ or ‘diaphragms’ stop the water spray from getting into the organ pipes. To start the Hydraulos organ, the tap above the entry pipe is turned on and, given a continuous flow of water, the organ plays until the tap is closed again.

For churches without electricity, like Kilmun, these instruments were popular but were usually converted to operation of the bellows by direct current electric motors. Later improvement led to the use of quiet AC motors which drive fan blowers. Organs powered by water are now rare, and the organ at Kilmun is the last one working in the West of Scotland. It was refurbished in 2006.